Who, if anyone, should have the power to silence voices on the internet?

It’s been terribly sad watching the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, unfold over the weekend and into this week.The clashes left many injured, one person dead, and re-opened fiery discussions around free speech and the open nature of the web.

At the center of the latest controversy sits The Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi news and commentary site that’s been available to access on the open web since July 2013. It’s been accused of fanning the flames of racial division which in part led to the violence.

And it’s now been forced underground. Cloud-hosting platform Digital Ocean has ceased to serve The Daily Stormer content, while Cloudflare, a content-delivery and DDoS protection service, has also pulled the plug on the website. Both did so after coming under fire on social media, but the comments of Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince spark an interesting discussion.

Banning hate

“This was my decision. This is not Cloudflare’s general policy now, going forward,” he told Gizmodo. “I think we have to have a conversation over what part of the infrastructure stack is right to police content.”

Prince says he made the unprecedented call as he considers those behind The Daily Stormer to be “assholes”, and also because while The Daily Stormer “was bragging on their bulletin boards about how Cloudflare was one of them” (something which “is the opposite of everything we believe”, said Prince), it prevented Cloudflare from being able to meaningfully enter the conversation about who should police what content, and when.

Cloudflare offer multiple protections against online threats.

Cloudflare offer multiple protections against online threats.

“I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again I don’t think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn’t be on the internet,” he concluded.

Digital Ocean and Cloudflare have been joined by other companies in banning or blocking The Daily Stormer and its team, with Facebook and Reddit banning hate groups, Twitter deleting the site’s accounts, Apple blocking Apple Pay payments for groups promoting hate-speech, and even Spotify taking ‘hate bands’ offline that once streamed freely across its cloud music library.

It’s worth noting that The Daily Stormer landed itself with Cloudflare only after being pushed from the Google and GoDaddy hosting platforms.

Going underground

Hate and Nazism, as Prince rightly says, are abhorrent. But is it right to censor those views if we value an open internet? Who, if anyone, should wield the power to silence views that go against the grain? And where does that path ultimately lead?

In the case of The Daily Stormer, all it’s achieved is to drive the site underground. Where once its hate was openly viewable and monitorable, it’s now retreated to the closed walls of the so-called ‘dark net’, where its network of bigotry can grow unchecked, and its visitors can communicate, strengthen ties and plot clandestinely.

And with the precedent set, what’s to stop other sites, innocent of bigotry but espousing views not shared by the internet gatekeepers, of being pulled offline too? 

WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services have come under attack.

WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services have come under attack.

It’s a conversation that stretches beyond web hosting, and touches on the ways we all use the internet everyday. Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp, for instance, are a fantastic way to communicate safely with friends, safe in the knowledge that your messages are protected against the prying eyes of both hackers and the state.

But it’s a stance that’s come under attack from government officials, with WhatsApp and similar services being linked with the secret formation of terrorist plots. And yet even the former head of the British intelligence service MI5, Jonathan Evans, has downplayed the effectiveness of breaking down encryption services outright, given the cybersecurity concerns it would undermine.

Some form of mediation is needed. Perhaps YouTube is too slow in pulling extremist content from its video player. Perhaps Cloudflare’s Prince has been too hasty to cast judgement on The Daily Stormer. But as online abuse spreads, fake news proliferates and tensions ride high, some form of jury for the myriad and diverse voices of the internet needs to be formed before any sentence against its most extreme and divisive antagonists can truly be considered justice.

Gerald Lynch

Gerald is Editor-in-Chief of iMore.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor for TechRadar, taking care of the site's home cinema, gaming, smart home, entertainment and audio output. He loves gaming, but don't expect him to play with you unless your console is hooked up to a 4K HDR screen and a 7.1 surround system. Before TechRadar, Gerald was Editor of Gizmodo UK. He is also the author of 'Get Technology: Upgrade Your Future', published by Aurum Press.